Friday, December 11, 2009

The mystery of David Poe, Jr.

Having already dedicated a post to Poe's mother, it is only fitting to follow it up with one about his father. Perhaps appropriate to the inventor of the modern detective story, however, Edgar Poe's father is a bit of a mystery.

David Poe, Jr. was born in Baltimore in 1784. His father, the original David Poe, was known for his patriotic self-sacrifice during the American Revolution. He was such a strong patriot, in fact, friends called him "General," despite not having such a title. One of those friends was the Marquis de La Fayette (who young Edgar Poe met years later).

David Poe, Jr.'s family was not well-off and they expected him to become a lawyer. He began studying law but, at the age of 22, was in Norfolk, Virginia, when he first laid eyes on the young widow Eliza Arnold Hopkins. Whether he was smitten by her or her acting performance is uncertain, but David decided to become an actor himself, to the dismay of his family. Eliza's first husband, Charles Hopkins, had been dead only six months when she and David married in 1806. Nine months later, their first son (William Henry Leonard Poe) was born. Two years later came baby Edgar. The parents weren't able to take care of their children and relied on David's Baltimore family to take care of them while they traveled and performed.

In fact, David did not excel as an actor. Over six years, he played 137 roles, 19 of them in Shakespeare works. Despite his attractive face, he just couldn't act. One critic noticed Mr. and Mrs. Poe: "the lady was young and pretty, and evinced both talent both as a singer and actress; the gentleman was literally nothing." Another wrote, "This man was never destined for the high walks of the drama; — a footman is the extent of what he ought to attempt." Puns on "Poe" and "p'oh" or "poo" were abundant.

The hard-tempered and sensitive David may have, in fact, suffered from stage fright. He turned to drinking. When Edgar was born, he realized his family was in a financial crisis. Rather than ask his famous father for help, he turned to a cousin in Stockertown, Pennsylvania named George Poe. Arriving at night unannounced, he was asked to come back the next day. Instead, he wrote a note — the only surviving letter from Edgar Poe's father — begging for money, with an all-to-insistent promise to pay him back. Edgar would write several similar notes.

David Poe appeared on stage in October 1809 — apparently his last. By July 1811, David had abandoned his family, quite literally disappearing off the map. It may have been due to his drinking, his lackluster performances, his jealousy of his wife, his frustration over his financial woes, or maybe he was dismissed from the troupe for his bad behavior and attitude (and bad acting skills). Or, perhaps, if we believe rumors suggested by both John Allan and Elizabeth Ellet, he left when his wife became pregnant with a third child — one which was not his.

David Poe, Jr. may have died on December 11, 1811* — three days after Eliza's death — in Norfolk, Virginia — the same town where he met his wife. Poe may or may not have known the circumstances. Known for making up his own autobiographical details, he did once acknowledge that his father outlived his mother, but by "a few weeks." David's burial place is unknown, and no image of him is known to exist.

*This date seems to have come from Susan Archer Talley Weiss, a minor poetess from Richmond who claimed to have known Poe intimately. Her claims should always be considered questionable. Nevertheless, I've seen this date listed in two other Poe sources. Go figure.

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